Roger Rosenblatt Discusses the Conflict over Evolution Theory

August 3, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROGER ROSENBLATT: In July 1925, 80 years ago give or take, John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution in the state of Tennessee.

Anniversary notwithstanding, there would be no need to bring up this historic moment were it not for a new claim on the part of those who still challenge evolution that a compromise exits between creationists and evolutionists called “intelligent design.”

However the world evolved, say the believers in intelligent design, it derived from God. To these advocates, the idea of randomness, which lies at the center of Darwin’s discussion of natural selection, doesn’t wash. God had to be in on the process.

In fact, Darwin said something like that himself, without going so far as making God nature’s chief architect. The third edition of the “Origin of Species” ends with a beautiful reflection on God as omnipresent spirit.

One should add that when Darwin went off on his “Voyage of the Beagle,” his constant literary companion was “Paradise Lost.”

But to Darwin and scientists since, the evolution of things natural remains a series of random adaptations. What today’s advocates call “intelligent design,” Darwin might have called “efficient” or “adequate” design — the sort of planning that derives from necessity.

The Scopes trial got the question of evolution versus creation off to a misleading start, in my opinion, because it established a context of debate between ideas not profitably debated. When William Jennings Bryan squared off against Clarence Darrow, it made it appear that the issue was going to be solved by a jury, a verdict. That cannot happen. One side represents faith; the other reason or science.

Scientists would do better never to enter debate with creationists because the world of thought they represent lies in a wholly different galaxy. To say that, however, is not to say that God need remain out of the picture in such discussions. The fact that Darwin’s study removed God from the evolution of nature only freed people to think of God in another and far more interesting way.

If God is not involved with the production of birds and plants, one might wonder how God is involved with us. That, it seems to me, is a question that has to do with how one lives one’s life. Matters of ethics, decency, morality and honor are at least as complex as the veins of a leaf, which by the way was the main point of Genesis.

One of the reasons that Darwin was one of the more remarkable people who ever lived had nothing to do with his 15 books of observation of such things as barnacles and coral, or even with the brilliance of his theory — an imaginative leap that leaves the works of artists in the dust. No, it had to do with his character.

When he was on the verge of completing the “Origin,” another scientist, Albert Russel Wallace, sent him a paper containing a theory of natural selection very much like Darwin’s own. Instead of calling a lawyer as one might these days, Darwin offered Wallace co-authorship of the idea; that is, co-authorship of a proposition that was going to change the world forever. Wallace, an equally noble man, declined, saying that Darwin’s theory was more complete and that his book would be more effective.

But the point is that Darwin was prepared to favor honor over fame. Moral thinking may lie outside nature’s evolution, but it also may be traceable to a source that teaches us to design ourselves intelligently.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.